If there's one walk in Italy where you won't get lonely or lost it would be in le Cinque Terre, on possibly the most popular "walk" in Italy.

This walk is along the pathway that clings to the hillside above the Ligurian sea linking five picturesque villages. It is not really a walk in the sense of striding out in the countryside, away from towns, in a rustic and rural environment. There will be no sense of isolation, no need for signs, though there are indeed plenty. If you are unsure of a turn or direction just follow the flock of other walkers streaming along the path and up and down the stairs in an unbroken flow.

Notwithstanding the crowds, le Cinque Terre form one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places you will ever find.

Le Cinque Terre, translated as "the five lands", needs little introduction. On the Ligurian coast, the villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore give their name to the "lands". Each is a pastel coloured picture postcard perched above the sea, inaccessible by road but linked by train or boat or indeed by footpaths.

The unique characteristics of the coast have led to it being declared a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are a small number of albergos and villagers have rooms to rent. Around the waterfronts are many cafes and restaurants where the tables shelter under brightly coloured umbrellas.
Le Cinque Terre
There were Roman settlements here, the fortified harbours were important strongholds during the middle ages and, over the years, marauding pirates sent the villagers into hiding places in the hills. The hillsides were terraced behind dry stone walls. Vines, olive trees and lemons were planted and continue now to be closely cultivated.
The square, blocky buildings of the villages crowd together as they climb up the steep hillsides from picturesque little harbours full of colourful fishing boats. The houses are painted in soft shades of pink, orange, yellow and ochre, like the gelato in tubs in the cafes. Steep stairs climb up from the sea and a confusion of narrow streets winds between the buildings.
Walking in le Cinque Terre
Maps with notes and instructions about the walking paths are available locally. All tracks are numbered and well signposted on the ground. The most popular is the coastal walk from Monterosso to Riomaggiore, the Sentiero Azzurro, numbered No 2. It is a five hour walk if undertaken in one go but a better option is to do it in stages, using the train or ferry service and allowing time to explore the villages and enjoy a leisurely lunch. There is much climbing and descending of lots of steps, the most arduous being the descent of 180m to Monterosso. It is a good idea to do this bit from Vernazza, in the south east, so you will be going down and not up.

Even though the coastal path is so busy, there are other walks which, because they are more demanding, are much less crowded. Route No 1 climbs to a height of up to 800m, so you are way above the coast with even more spectacular views. This can also be extended into a much longer route, from Levanto to Portovenere. Other paths link Routes 1 and 2 and go further afield as linear or loop itineraries.
Tickets must be bought to walk the paths and there are manned booths at the entry and exit points of each town. There is either a Cinque Terre Card which allows you to use the trails and the trains or simply a trails card. The park authorities reserve the option to close the trails if they are becoming too crowded.

There is always the possibility also that parts of the pathways may be closed due to rock falls or dangerous conditions. The disastrous floods of October 2011 almost wiped parts of le Cinque Terre from the map but fortunately most of the infrastructure has now been rebuilt.
In October 2011 torrential rainstorms and mudslides descended on le Cinque Terre with Vernazza and Monterosso all but wiped out. Rivers of mud poured down the steep narrow streets. The ground floor of our albergo and all other buildings in the harbour area were completely inundated, all the small shops that lined the main street and piazza were swept away or filled with mud and the embankment wall above the harbour was like a mini, very muddy Niagara Falls. The piazza and the harbour were filled with smashed up boats, cars, trees and unthinkable debris.

The local community, the government and the world quickly rallied. Businesses have been rebuilt and the tourists have kept coming to show their support so that tourism could get back on its feet. Not all the trails have yet been rebuilt and Vernazza is still being reconstructed with input from world renowned architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.

Pictures of the devastation and recovery can be found at this link
The storms of October 2011
Our visit
In May 2000 it was still some weeks away from the full season when we based ourselves in a small albergo on the waterfront in Vernazza. Our plan was to explore the coastal walk in stages returning to Vernazza each day by the train. There were quite a lot of people about and this was before you had to buy a ticket to walk the paths.

Our hotel bedroom faced the port and looked over the restaurants which would offer a tempting choice of seafood each evening. Convivial large tables packed us all together and chit-chat continued till late at night. We ate delicious seafood and enjoyed the local wine and limoncello.

The first day we walked in a south easterly direction along the clifftops to arrive first in Corniglia, then on to Manarola with its pretty little harbour, and finally along the so called Via dell'Amore to Riomaggiore. We found this last stage rather disappointing, being a hard edged concrete pathway right at sea level. Riomaggiore seemed to be lacking the charm of the other villages with few enticing restaurants so we walked back to Manarola where there was a great choice of places serving yummy lunches. The train trip back to Vernazza was barely a ten minute ride.
The next day we went the other direction. Here the path was quite rough and narrow with a sheer drop into the turquoise ocean, slightly tricky when passing walkers coming in the other direction. There would be a slight pause, and then the greetings .... Buongiorno (with a German accent) .... Buongiorno (with a French accent).... Buongiorno (with an American accent).

Groups of French and German walkers moved along like a many legged centipede, walking poles like legs scrambling along beside them. On the steep climb up from Monterosso they puffed and panted and hauled themselves up the steps on their poles.

The terraces on the mountain side of the path were planted with grapevines and lemon trees, dripping with big full lemons destined to be refined into the local limoncello that restaurateurs plied us with after dinner every night.

After a lunch of the celebrated local anchovies we explored one of the other pathways further west where we climbed some a looked back towards Vernazza and the other villages. Once again the train speedily returned us to Vernazza.
The following day was market day in Montorosso so we did the walk again, this time coming back by boat. Stalls selling huge slabs of parmegiana and fresh fruit and vegetables from the surrounding hillsides were among the tempting attractions in the market.

As serious walkers we failed, deciding without much reluctance that the pleasures at sea level outnumbered those of the mountain pathways. Per un'altra volta, as they say.
On our last night, a storm blew up and we awoke to the noise of frantic activity as all the fishing boats were lifted out of the water and onto racks in the piazza. The still, turquoise water had become grey and choppy with waves breaking over the protective walls of the harbour. The contrast was astonishing and we watched the storm rage till it was time to leave. No doubt by evening the tranquillity would be restored but it was sobering to see how quickly nature could change the peaceful environment.
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Vernazza and its harbour
Harbourside restaurant
Main street - Vernazza
The storm
Wall decoration, Vernazza
Vernazza from the sea
Boats in the Porto, Vernazza
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